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VoIP providers reined in by regulator

999 rules loom

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A new set of rules aimed at VoIP operators in the UK was unveiled by Ofcom today, which could lead to UK internet telephone users winning rights to access emergency services.

A public consultation last year echoed international concerns that VoIP users were often unable to contact emergency services and were unaware of the fact until they tried to to make the call.

Ofcom's new code of practice requires VoIP operators to make accessibility to 999 calls clear, and a further investigation later this year will determine whether they should be compelled to furnish connections.

VoIP operators would have to pay physical network owners like BT to complete calls. The delay will provide breathing space for industry lobby group ITSPA, which complained that Ofcom "red tape" would restrict VoIP growth if its members were forced to provide access to emergency services.

Such a move by Norwegian regulators in 2005 led to Skype temporarily cutting off connections to the country's traditional telephone network. The eBay-owned outfit has since repeatedly mumbled it is "not a replacement telphony service". Vonage bowed to similar pressure in the US by cutting a deal with Verizon to route emergency calls.

Ofcom said networks operating in the UK will also have to explain to consumers that - unlike with traditional lines - it's likely they'll be cut off in a power outage. The bugbear of number switching will be tackled too: VoIP operators won't be forced to offer it if customers jump ship, but they will be expected to have said they wouldn't when the contract was first signed.

The code will come into force this June, and means VoIP firms will have to be more up front about other limitations of their services. The availability of features standard among traditional operators like call itemisation and directory assistance will need to be made clear from the outset.

An executive summary of the rules is here. ®

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